Dorothy Crenshaw April 24, 2020 | 09:12:56
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Brands Bring Substance To COVID-19 Response

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended marketing and PR for nearly every major brand. Now, five weeks into the lockdown that has decimated many business sectors, most companies have settled into a new normal. Many have learned from early mistakes or half-measures and have scrapped old campaigns for new ones that make a positive impact for employees, customers, and communities.

It’s not about the logo

Early into the social distancing phase, several brands acknowledged the situation through visuals. They changed their logos in solidarity with the new guidelines, and the effect was…awkward. The familiar McDonald’s arches were strangely pulled apart. Coca-Cola sponsored a sign in New York’s (sadly empty) Times Square that featured distance between each letter of its logo, with the tagline, “Staying apart is the best way to stay connected.” While well-intended, the “quarantine” logos won mixed reviews. As Brian Braiker, former editor-in-chief of AdAge put it, “Understanding the situation, shutting up and doing something helpful is really the only way to go here.”

I tend to agree. As the pandemic and its impact have grown, many companies recognized it was time to go beyond social distancing PSAs or offers of fun branded Zoom backgrounds. It’s not about the logo; in fact, it’s not about you.

Since then, many companies have tried to inject more substance into their pandemic responses. Quite a few launched ad campaigns recognizing their own employees. Kraft/Heinz created a beautiful and empowering campaign by having factory workers shoot smartphone video ads celebrating themselves. Midwestern supermarket chain Hy-Vee produced a “hero” video homage to its grocery workers, complete with the original Bonnie Tyler soundtrack. But I couldn’t help but think – for the price of the video ads and promotion, why not simply offer extra pay to those on the front retail lines? Maybe Hy-Vee did both. But the most PR-powerful gesture may have been by Yum Brands. Its CEO announced he would forego the remainder of this year’s base salary of $900,000 to fund bonuses for 1200 general managers at its restaurants. That’s putting your money where the mouths are.

Real help for those who need it

The third phase of the pandemic has brought the most substantive PR and marketing campaigns.

Big Tech has stepped up. Google reached into its deep pockets and rolled out an $800 million program of direct financial assistance, ad credits, and grants to businesses with active Google adwords accounts. Self-serving? Sure, what helps its advertisers helps Google, but it’s real money where it’s needed. To sweeten the program, Google pledged $250 million in ad credits to the World Health Organization (WHO) and other public health agencies. It’s also throwing $20 million in Cloud services to researchers studying COVID-19 vaccines and therapies.

Facebook, meanwhile is dramatically expanding its Community Help feature to address the pandemic. It’s also increasing grants to small businesses, letting companies fundraise on their own pages, and introducing a place for people to discover digital gift cards for their favorite local businesses. WhatsApp has partnered with WHO, UNICEF, and other groups to create a Coronavirus Hub that checks facts about the virus. Facebook, too, is working to correct misinformation and rumors. But it has also used technology in an innovative way. In partnership with researchers at Carnegie Mellon, it launched a survey map of self-reported symptoms people are experiencing during the pandemic. The aggregate data makes for an interactive map of daily, county-by-county updates on symptoms.  The goal is to help officials pinpoint where supplies may be needed or predict a COVID-19 resurgence.

Youth brands fight bad info, promote mental health

Snapchat has taken a slightly different tack, but one designed for its core audience of teens and young adults. It expanded and accelerated a feature called “Here for You”, which locates safety resources from local experts when users search for topics related to “anxiety, depression, stress, grief, suicidal thoughts, and bullying.” That’s a positive move, but a more creative one was its latest AR filter, which lets users donate directly to WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. It’s also giving publishers covering COVID-19 on its Discover platform a swipe-up-to-donate feature. Over 68 million Snapchatters have viewed COVID-19-related content, so the potential reach is significant.

Another on-target youth-oriented campaign is by Jansport, the backpack brand. It launched #unpackthatchallenge – a program of food donations whereby students create TikTok videos as they unpack their home desks.

Rallying around small business

But the best and most meaningful work might be done by those companies who serve the many small businesses that were slammed by the pandemic. Intuit’s QuickBooks, for example, has teamed with GoFundMe for a small business relief fund. And can you imagine being a retail store without e-commerce capabilities right now? eBay rolled out a $100 million e-commerce accelerator open to retailers that only have a brick and mortar presence. New businesses can run an eBay store free with guidance and resources from the company for three months, with no selling fees.

Backlash over loan distribution

There have been some real reputation losers, along with the occasional tone-deaf message. This morning Shake Shack announced it would return $10 million in funds under the PPP program – the $349 billion in forgiveable loans administered by the SBA. But the announcement brought jeers on social media because Shake Shack’s motives were in question. The beef? Due to its size and number of locations, it wasn’t strictly eligible for the loan in the first place. There was similar anger over Ruth’s Chris, the swanky steakhouse chain that gobbled up $20 million in SBA funds and was a target of a fierce backlash over monies allocated to chain restaurants and other large corporations over small, locally owned and operated businesses. Similarly, many large banks charged with administering the loans with little notice have seen their reputations battered, and their best hope is a round-two from the government. Stay tuned.

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